“Accidental Racist” is one of those songs I imagine launching a thousand standup routines. The material (lyrics) and participants (Brad Paisley and LL Cool J) are too mineable — from all sorts of angles to all sorts of punchlines, I’m sure. Except the subject matter is more than just something to make light of for the late-night crowds; it touches on some big questions that affect both the sensitive and insensitive alike. I’ve no special insight, no particularly useful anecdote to elucidate the schemata occurring here, but I do know who to read on “Why ‘Accidental Racist’ Is Actually Just Racist:”
In an artform distinguished by a critical mass concerned with racism, LL’s work is distinguished by its lack of concern. Which is fine. “Pink Cookies” is dope. “Booming System” is dope. “I Shot Ya” is dope. I even rock that “Who Do You Love” joint. But I wouldn’t call up Talib Kweli to record a song about gang violence in L.A., and I wouldn’t call up KRS-ONE to drop a verse on a love ballad. The only real reason to call up LL is that he is black and thus must have something insightful to say about the Confederate Flag.
The assumption that there is no real difference among black people is exactly what racism is. Our differences, our right to our individuality, is what makes us human. The point of racism is to rob black people of that right. It would be no different than me assuming that Rachel Weisz must necessarily have something to say about black-Jewish relations, or me assuming that Paisley must know something about barbecue because he’s Southern.
It is no different than the only black kid in class being asked to explain “race” to white people, or asking the same question of the sole black dude in your office. The entire fight is to get white people to respect the fact that Mos Def holding a microphone is not LL Cool J holding a microphone, that Trayvon Martin is not De’Marquise Elkins, that wearing a hoodie and being black does not make you the same as every other person wearing a hoodie and being black.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is typically excellent here, despite what I’m sure were his misgivings on writing on the country-rapper duet in the first place, and it is another step along the way from his op-ed on good racist people. Sure, in our finite lives this song probably doesn’t rank very high on the list of things to officially worry about. It’s just another ignorance-inspired act to pretend we’ve moved on and the past is the past and “can’t we all just get along” and let me celebrate my (racist) regional heritage without being called names? Well occasionally the short answer has to be brought up too, as it is, or at least should be, no. Justin Charity explains:
Of course not. The Confederate flag [sic] not iconic of the South in any modern, livable sense; it’s simply, decidedly, unapologetically white. The Confederate flag is white pride, full stop. It doesn’t celebrate black freedom, or Southern blackness, nor does it mean to. What’s the point in denying this sleight, or forgiving it as LL does? How does counterfeiting history nudge us toward, of all things, understanding?
Why put this post up? Because I have to worry about these things now more than ever. I’m watching my three year old Claire (four tomorrow!) play outside. She’s role-taking with Mortimer the Moose and Kitty the Pink Kitten in an adventure that only she can see. She probably won’t be like her dad and grow up in a town that was 98 percent white — more likely it’ll be one where she’s a racial minority. Or taking her mother’s word for it, as I had to, that non-white folk are ‘just like the rest of us’ cause there weren’t encounters for me to learn firsthand. For that I’m grateful but when she gets bigger, and the friends are less imaginary, life will get uncomfortably real for her (and me). I don’t expect her to live in a post-racial world, where judgement of character was only a concern of her grandparents generation. Hopefully she’ll learn better from folks more uniquely suited to teaching her than I’ll be able to do. My goal is just to make it a place where people’s skin color isn’t a blind observation, but one that’s grounded in history with a contemporary respect of individuals.
So it’s in my mind right now, amongst many other things when I look at her, but that particular part will have to wait. Right now I have push my daughter in a swing.
*Edited for clarity.